What's This New Age Stuff?


New Age Politics: Healing Self and Society, by Mark Satin, New York: Delta Books, 1979, 349 pp., $5.75 (paper).

Mark Satin is a 34-year-old former Marxist, labor organizer, draft evader, and exile in Canada who over the last few years has groped his way to a new understanding of the psychological and cultural roots of the human condition. Unlike Paul on the road to Damascus, Satin did not experience that great searing flash of insight that made a different man of him. But slowly, day by day, in the coffee houses of Vancouver and the classrooms of Toronto, wrapped in earnest conversation with fellow leftists and exiles, cloistered in the gloom of library stacks, Mark Satin came to realize that the path to progress, human values, and survival led not to a political ism, but to a new, transformed consciousness about human life and the responsibilities of human beings.

The result is this second edition of New Age Politics, superseding a first edition that the author painstakingly set in type himself in a small print shop in Vancouver. What Satin has tried to do in this work is to bring together and synthesize into a coherent whole the thinking of numerous "new age" writers and thinkers. Though that synthesis is occasionally marred by the author's obsession with recognizing the source of every thought, even the most mundane, it is nonetheless an important achievement, important enough that one can fairly recommend New Age Politics as the indispensable introduction to what is now being called "new age thought."

To attempt a brief definition, new age thought seeks to define a new, transformed consciousness that can help people to contribute to the creation of a more purposeful, humane, life-oriented, responsible, and satisfying society. New age thinking seeks higher levels of synthesis, beyond the ordinary level of political and doctrinal strife. It seeks to transcend a narrow materialism in favor of a heightened awareness of spiritual truths and mythic values. It steers away from the desire to accumulate wealth and power and dictate the affairs of others.

To illustrate this approach, Satin offers the paradigm of "The Six Sided Prison," a condition that he views not only as contrary to the flowering of human growth, love, and responsibility, but also as inimical to human survival in a very real sense. The first side of the prison is patriarchy, which Satin defines as a system of power relationships dominated by males. The new age answer to this is labeled androgyny, used not in its more common sense as "bisexual" but as "sex-transcendent." The second side of the prison is egocentricity, to which new age thought opposes a broad spirituality, a recognition that the self, while important, is not the force that makes the world go round.

The third side of the prison is scientific single vision, or reductionism—the attitude that nothing exists that is not quantifiable and that the whole is no more than the sum of its many parts. A "multiple vision" that recognizes the unmeasurables, the imponderables, and the mysticals is the new age alternative. The fourth side is the bureaucratic mentality, which views order, status, depersonalization, efficiency, predictability, and discipline as its highest goals. This mentality is contrary to the new age ideal of cooperative, participatory processes. The fifth side of the prison is the religion of nationalism, which new agers would replace with a combination of local patriotism and global consciousness. Finally, the new age approach places strong emphasis on the importance of human scale in all things, not a giantism that overcomes and dwarfs human beings and human values.

New agers emphasize such ethical values as self-development, ecology, cooperation, and nonviolence. Their social values include a sense of enoughness, autonomy, community, diversity, many-sidedness, humility before nature, reverence for life, and responsibility for other humans, for the earth, and for posterity. Their bane is monstrous, rigid systems—the defense establishment, compulsory educational systems, organized churches, mass-produced housing, nuclear energy—all of which constitute monolithic organizations and modes of production.

In economics, new agers reject the frenzied pursuit of profit, wealth, and power that they associate with the idea of capitalism. At the same time—and this is of profound importance—new agers are drawn, though not without some kicking and screaming, in the direction of a simplified, pure, small-scale economic system featuring a widespread dispersion of productive property, sound money, limited interference by the State, moral responsibility for one's acts, and freedom of exchange. This is obviously not a form of enforced collectivism but of anarcho-capitalism. But where capitalists, after Adam Smith, assume that the vector result of human acquisitiveness will equal the maximum benefit to society, new age thinkers insist that capitalism as a system must exhibit a concern for right livelihood, for human growth and development beyond the appearance of profit on the balance sheet, and for the social benefit from economic activity.

So much for a concise overview of the kind of thinking Satin organizes and summarizes in New Age Politics. The question now is, of what interest is all this to libertarians? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that what appears to be a large and growing movement, not only in the United States but across a large part of the world, has converged upon a philosophy that, though it begins far removed from the libertarian premises of nonaggression, the free market, and individual liberty as against the State, nonetheless struggles toward the conclusion that new age values can best be achieved through libertarian means. Indeed, it may become evident that those values can be achieved only through libertarian means, particularly if libertarian is defined broadly enough to include some varieties of left-anarchism.

This should be a matter of great importance to libertarians. For it offers hope for, at the least, a compatible tactical alliance, and at best, a new creative synthesis that preserves libertarian values but adds to them a broader and perhaps deeper understanding of the role of man in the universe, nation, village, and homestead.

It is always dangerous to characterize libertarians as a whole—careers have been destroyed in the attempt—but oblivious to the risk I will dare to suggest that the predominant concern of modern libertarians is the liberation of man from the clutches of the State. And well it should be, for the State has become a vast, oppressive engine, awesomely destructive of the energies and the very humanity of what Murray Rothbard calls "its hapless subjects." But exposure to new age thinking—and there is no better place to start than Mark Satin's book—will do much to sensitize libertarians to the importance of advancing a fully rounded philosophy of human liberty, self-development, cooperation, humanity, and moral behavior. This is not to suggest—God forfend!—that such concerns are absent from libertarian writings. But it is true, I think, that libertarians tend to lavish more attention upon invasions of liberty and the marketplace by the State than on the transformation of mankind into a new kind of creature who can, at last, achieve the highest and most cherished values of our race.

New Age Politics is, however, far from immune to criticism. While its synthesis of diverse new age points of view into one coherent whole is a major achievement, the book is marred by the author's virtually total lack of familiarity with libertarian writings. Indeed, Satin views libertarianism as an outmoded "industrial era philosophy" concerned only with protecting the marketplace from State interference in the name of greater production of goods and services—some useful, but many unnecessary and harmful. Of the 250 new age books listed in an appendix, only three—by Karl Hess, Scott Burns, and Leopold Kohr—can even remotely be considered libertarian. As to conservatives, with whom Satin is almost equally unfamiliar, only Robert Nisbet, Michael Novak, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn make an appearance. Inquiry magazine is listed, doubtless a tribute to its efforts to achieve respectability with the left, but no other libertarian publication appears among the 50 new age periodicals. At the same time, on the other hand, New Age Politics rarely misses an opportunity to kick the hell out of socialism and Marxism generally, a reflection of the author's personal hegira.

Finally, New Age Politics unwisely devotes 21 pages to a chapter hesitantly entitled "A New Age 'Political Platform' Offered as a Discussion Document." Better this discussion had never taken place. Satin has rummaged through public policy recommendations from sources as diverse as the contributors to the earlier part of his volume and has selected an astonishing assortment of proposals. To his credit, a number of the proposals are culled from a recent LP platform. But they are combined with a gallimaufry of statist claptrap that not only makes the whole thing absurd but also calls into question the value of a philosophy that can combine such hopeless incompatibles into one document, even a document labeled "for discussion only."

There is, however, in the new age philosophy a real possibility of a political platform tailored to advance new age values. And in the last analysis, that platform would look suspiciously like a libertarian platform. For it is becoming ever more apparent, to "new agers" as well as everyone else, that new age values cannot be realized by decree of the State. New age values spring from the hearts of people, and the role of the State, if any, must be to allow those values to express themselves in voluntary, free activity for the benefit of society. That freedom, deriving from libertarian principles, coupled with a renewed sense of moral responsibility and spiritual appreciation drawn from the rich lode of new age thinking, can produce a higher synthesis acceptable to a large number of citizens, perhaps even a majority. By showing the way to this synthesis, however imperfectly, New Age Politics makes an extremely valuable contribution to contemporary political dialogue.

John McClaughry is president of the Institute for Liberty and Community, Concord, Vermont.